In the early 1970s, Joe Tilson left the ultra-urban environment of London for the stillness of Wiltshire. At the same time, he turned his artistic attention to the construction of large wooden Cretan labyrinths, of which ‘Caerdroia’ is one of the earliest examples. A trained carpenter, Tilson was also fascinated by the symbolism of ancient cultures, especially the Ancient Greeks. In the labyrinth, a structure that transcends time and place, he found what he had always sought in his art: a symbol of secret meaning, manifested in formal, ordered design.

‘Six Labyrinths’, aquatint etching featuring designs for six Cretan labyrinths produced in 1977, four years after ‘Caerdroia’

Caerdroia is the Welsh word for Troy (‘Troea’), which by a linguistic parallel – ‘troeau’ translates as ‘bends’ – was known as the ‘Castle of Turns’, so-called for its mythically unnavigable system of walls and streets. Historically, Welsh shepherds are said to have created their own ‘caerdroia’, sevenfold mazes that were associated with sacred dances and ceremonial feasts. Tilson’s maze mimics these medieval turf versions, whose paths were delineated by raised earth rather than surrounded on either side by walls.

Labyrinth ‘Caerdroia’, elm wood construction with oil paint (1973)

The effect, along with Tilson’s painted arrows that lead the eye from centre to entrance, is to reiterate the paradox at the heart of the labyrinth, to which, as Michael Compton describes, there is a single, inevitable solution: ‘To follow the maze is always to arrive at the end which is already in view, but to take a rhythmically wandering path. It is a ritual picture of a journey or pilgrimage.’

Detail from ‘Caerdroia’, which was exhibited at a major Tilson exhibition at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, November – January 1973-4

Carved in elm wood, Tilson was no doubt aware of the tree’s own history as archaic symbol. The mythic elm of Greek and Roman epic was variously associated with both life and death. In Greek pastoral poetry, shepherds would laze beneath its shady boughs and sing of unrequited love. Roman viticulturists planted elms in their vineyards as supports for wandering vines, and the tree became a symbol for Dionysian leisure and sustenance.

Other myths recount the planting of elm trees by nymphs on the tombs of fallen heroes, or the Stygian elm of Virgil’s Aeneid that stands amidst the shades of the Underworld and welcomes empty dreams between its branches. Are we to read Tilson’s cryptic silenced mouth, painted at the centre of his elm-wood maze, as a symbol of idyllic peace or the final hush of the kiss of death?

‘Caerdroia’ in situ; the construction, one of the largest Tilson works we have ever had, stands at just over two metres tall (210 x 170 cm)

With its rich conflation of mythological resonances, Tilson’s Caerdroia offers the viewer little by way of illumination, though this is perhaps the point. Created at a time when Tilson himself had undergone his own labyrinthine journey, a retreat from the city into the shadowed corridors of the countryside, Caerdroia reads as a highly personal expression of the artist at a particular time and place – and an invitation to tread the maze’s path and unravel its secrets for ourselves.

View Tilson’s ‘Caerdroia’ Labyrinth online here >